How to Demonstrate Leadership on College Applications

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Many high school students think they have to be involved in as many clubs and activities as possible in order to get into the university of their choice.

While these thoughts sound reasonable, participation in too many extracurricular activities can have a negative effect on your application.

Colleges today want leaders, and if you really want to stand out, it’s time to take a strategic approach to becoming one.

If there’s one thing to remember, always take a legitimate interest in a subject. Nothing beats honesty and sincerity! That’s a good rule for life, as well.

The key to looking like a leader is becoming one. This is the golden rule of college application leadership!

Always a Member, Never a Leader

You may know the person at your school who is a member of every club and plays five sports.

You might even be that person.

Membership in these groups can show your dedication, but it’s also exhausting.

More importantly, colleges aren’t looking for hundreds of renaissance people each year; instead, they want applicants who are dedicated to and passionate about their involvement in activities outside of the classroom.

How many people actually attend all of the clubs they put on their transcript? Is going to a club the only thing that matters?

So, how do you show a college that you’re a dedicated and passionate individual? Here are a few helpful steps.

Step 1: Discover Your Passion

Right now, you might not be able to define yourself. Are you an artist? A writer? A team leader or captain?

Discovering a passion, and having it on your transcript is the first step to showing that you know who you are, and that you can communicate it clearly to a college.

Here are some places, within your school, to discover your talents and passions:

  • Arts/Theater
  • Languages
  • Science/Robotics
  • Philosophy
  • Literary magazine/Journalism
  • Sports (playing and management)
  • Student government
  • Peer tutoring/Academic tutoring
  • Academic organizations (Debate, Scholars’ Bowl, Model UN)

Chances are that your school offers most or all of these options. While it might seem attractive to join as many of them as you can, your time is too valuable.

Instead, focus on the things you enjoy doing.

All of them have leadership positions: whether you’re an editor of the school newspaper, a captain of the basketball team, or the president of your student government, it’s always possible for you to rise to the top.

No one expects you to be an expert at everything, and high school might be just the place to try something new.

Have you ever considered building and testing a robot? Are you an excellent chemistry student who could be a tutor?

You don’t need answers to all of these questions, but you should always be open to trying new experiences.

Step 2: Get Involved

In any school with extracurricular activities, there are usually many opportunities to get involved.

Often coming at the beginning of the year, sports tryouts and club fairs can be ideal times to become part of an activity.

If you’re an underclassman and don’t want to do it alone, tryouts and club fairs work with groups, so you’ll be in good company.

  • The earlier you begin to think about leadership, the earlier you can get involved in clubs and activities. You can be a part of something for the entirety of your high school career.

Many activities are seasonal, or meet at different times throughout the year.

If you miss an opportunity in September, but still want to get involved, consider the following options:

  • Pay attention to school announcements.
  • Ask friends or siblings for recommendations about clubs.
  • Talk to teachers/coaches about leadership opportunities.

Step 3: Work Toward a Leadership Position

Taking a leadership position in anything, from school to the professional world, requires a certain set of skills.

Some people are natural leaders, and others learn leadership through experience.

Regardless of which category you might fall into, you should know that being a leader is always attainable.

Here are some things that can take you from simply being a member of an activity to achieving a leadership role.

Show up on time, every time.

Extracurricular activities are serious commitments, both in terms of time and responsibility.

  • Leadership means showing that you are a responsible person on whom others can count.
  • Your punctuality and attendance speak volumes about how much you care.

If you have scheduled too many clubs that meet at the same time, choose one rather than stretching yourself thin to meet multiple obligations.

When it comes time to choose leaders, only those who have backed up their interest with clear dedication make the cut.

Work well with others.

Listen to what people have to say, and value others’ ideas.

Good leadership means caring for people and making them feel respected.

  • Whether you’re planning a potluck for French club or choreographing a new cheer, let people have their say.

Similarly, make sure your contribution to the group is clear.

Don’t hang back silently. If you don’t feel any investment, you might not be in the right group.

An activity that gives you some input and makes you feel worthwhile will be the one that you return to year after year.

Meet your deadlines.

Is your club planning a fundraiser? Is your team organizing a pep rally? Most school activities usually sponsor some sort of event.

  • Planning for them might require you to do a job with a deadline.
  • Maybe you’re a journalist who has to turn in an article next Wednesday.

Maybe you’re looking for tapas recipes in Spanish club.

No matter what it is, volunteer to do something and make sure it’s done on time.

Meeting deadlines is the easiest way to earn the respect of your peers, teammates, and club officers.

Be enthusiastic.

Encourage your friends to come to your club.

Make announcements about the next soccer tryout in class.

If people see you as someone who can act as a representative of the club, you will more likely be in consideration to take a leadership position as an officer, captain, or manager.

Step 4: Know How to Sell Your Leadership

If you have been given the responsibility of a leadership position in your activity, the next step is showing it to a college.

While your position will go on your transcript (and you must make sure it does), you can also consider writing about it in your college essay, or using it as anecdotal information in an interview with a college representative.

  • Remember, leadership isn’t only about what you write on your application; you can extrapolate your experience and tell a story about how certain activities have changed your values and perspective. 

Leadership is about knowing yourself and your position with regard to others.

It’s about knowing how you collaborate with others to get a job done.

Colleges want leaders because they have strong understandings of their own skill set and abilities to succeed within a community.

Take the time to reflect on the moments you were able to help others solve a problem or collaborate during an event.

Consider your role in this process, and how you were indispensable in making the activity run smoothly. It’s always best to see yourself as part of a team, but knowing your role within that team is essential.

Step 5: Try It!

Leadership roles can exist in unlikely places.

Once they see you as someone with knowledge of your own strengths and the ability to communicate them, you have the potential to stand out and rise to the top of a list.

Conclusion: College Application Leadership

Ultimately, leadership success on your college application boils down to finding a passion or interest, taking the time to participate in the activity, and doing your part to progress the activity.

Leadership isn’t a label, it’s a habit and an action.

Nothing can beat taking a legitimate and sincere interest in a subject.

It’s best to start as a freshman, but it’s never too late to dive into something you love.

Never forget the golden rule of college application leadership: The best way to demonstrate your abilities as a leader is to become one.

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